the challenge of the network era

“There’s no room for argument about whether hate-filled internet message boards encourage real-world violence: they do, and none more so than 8chan. It normalises racism, misogyny, and extremism – and helps turn nightmarish, loud-mouthed talk of action into reality.” —Destroyer of Worlds

This examination of the 8chan online community shows how anonymity can breed a very dark social structure that is impossible to control, even for the founder. It seems that even if this community was shut down, a new one will be created, as evidenced by the rapid migration of the Gamergate harassment group from 4chan to 8chan. The disruption of civil society becomes the raison d’être of these types of communities.

It is the structure of a chan site itself that radicalises people. “The other anonymous users are guiding what’s socially acceptable, and the more and more you post on there you’re being affected by what’s acceptable and that changes you. Maybe you start posting Nazi memes as a joke… but you start to absorb those beliefs as your own, eventually,” Brennan [8chan founder] says. “Anonymity makes people reveal themselves, but because there are other anonymous users – not just one person in a black box – it also changes what they reveal.” —Destroyer of Worlds

There are many calls for policing by the platform owners of these communities, which is why the 8chan servers were moved to the Philippines. We are also hearing calls for the policing of major platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and even individual blogs. But will this solve the problem or merely create new ones? Cory Doctorow weighs-in with a possible view from the near future.

“I shouldn’t have to publish this in The New York Times.

Ten years ago, I could have published this on my personal website, or shared it on one of the big social media platforms. But that was before the United States government decided to regulate both the social media platforms and blogging sites as if they were newspapers, making them legally responsible for the content they published.” —NYT 2019-06-24

Is it possible that there may come a day when I cannot write a blog post like this one, in order to have a ‘safe’ Web? How can we address the influence of a community like 8chan —”a place with a structure that made it a perfect petri-dish for violent misogyny and all kinds of hateful ideologies to germinate and spread” — while maintaining freedom of speech and the free spread of ideas, even controversial ones? I am certain the answer is complex and nuanced, and I am afraid that politicians and corporations may push us to more institutionalized control and less individual freedom.

We need to have outside voices that challenge the status quo. For example, Michael de Adder, a political cartoonist, had his 17-year contract with a newspaper chain cancelled with no notice or reason. However, many people say the reason was obvious.

“Wes Tyrell, a political cartoonist and president of the Association of Canadian Cartoonists, said, “Although [de Adder] has stated there was no reason given for his firing, the timing was no coincidence.”

He noted that the Trump cartoon did not appear in the newspaper but its popularity across social media likely caught the eye of the Irving family, which has a monopoly on New Brunswick’s papers. Their companies — which include oil and gas, shipping and transportation — are worth an estimated $10 billion, making them among Canada’s richest families.” —HuffPo 2019-06-30

 

Image: Twitter

Understanding our new media surround is the challenge of the network era. Reverting back to our governments or markets to address these new challenges will not serve civil society. We need distributed and networked responses to online disinformation, fearmongering, hate, and fake news. For example, the Wall Street Journal has 21 people dedicated to analyzing deep fakes. The better, but longer-term, solution is that each citizen be engaged in understanding media, so that we have millions fulfilling this role.

Avoiding societal deception in the network era requires an aggressively intelligent citizenry. We need to learn how to work cooperatively to deal with the complex problems facing us that cannot be addressed through our existing tribal, institutional, or market structures. Understanding the effects of pervasive networks like social media is an essential literacy.

Each citizen has to be informed through active engagement in the digitally-mediated society. We no longer trust experts — evidenced by the mistrust of ‘elites’ — so we have to consciously develop our own expert networks that we do trust. This requires effort, such as the discipline of personal knowledge mastery. Our networks can make our sensemaking much easier in the long run. Without personal knowledge networks, we are at the whim of whatever current outrage is flowing through the social media platforms.

We have to create a fifth estate that is not an institution, nor a slave to the markets, but a true network. We need to become real networked citizens. It means thinking for ourselves. We are not alone. Billions of us are connected by the technology that could deceive us. Let’s not let it. We can either work to build a civil society or live in an emerging  panopticon. Media in a networked society are much too big to be left to the platform owners or even journalists.

 

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